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SA at the UN: Don’t believe the hype

Winning a two-year non-permanent seat on the 15-member United Nations Security Council from January 2007, with an impressive 186 out of 192 votes, is a great achievement for South Africa. The euphoria has, however, tended to obscure the reality of how limited a role non-permanent members are able to play in council decisions.

A useful reference point is that every effort to reform the Security Council over the past 40 years has failed. The effort last year was no exception, and talk of an expanded Security Council is illusory for the foreseeable future.

When the UN was set up in 1945, the weaker countries had little choice but to accept the five victors of World War II — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — as veto-wielding permanent members as a way of guaranteeing their own security. The hope was that the powerful would play by institutional rules and protect the weak. But the eruption of the Cold War soon led to paralysis through the casting of vetoes, and the Security Council became a stage for Washington and Moscow to wage ideological skirmishes, while fuelling destructive wars by proxy in the developing world.

The end of the Cold War raised expectations of greater cooperation: between 1990 and 2003, only 12 substantive vetoes were cast compared with 193 vetoes in the preceding 45 years. These great expectations have, however, recently been dashed by unilateral US interventions in Kosovo and Iraq without UN approval.

The Security Council’s arcane rules of procedure have remained ‘provisional” for 60 years, to the advantage of its five permanent members (the P-5), which have sometimes referred disparagingly to the elected 10 members as ‘tourists”. While the formal use of the veto by the P-5 has declined, the veto is still effectively exercised in the closed-door consultations of the council, which is where most of its serious business occurs.

The Security Council’s intricate procedures are well known to the P-5, who also have privileged access to UN documents from secretariat staff. UN secretariat officials often consult privately with P-5 ambassadors before proposing recommendations to the full council. The P-5 do most of the drafting of council resolutions and often decisions are based on complex (and not always visible) trade-offs between the veto-wielding powers that have been worked out over many years. Since no written records of the closed-door consultations are kept, the P-5 represent the Security Council’s institutional memory, giving it a huge advantage over the 10 rotating members.

With many decisions based on legal precedents, permanence of membership confers great advantage. The 10 elected members are sometimes excluded from decision-making on strategic issues such as Iraq, where informal meetings of the permanent members are often used to make decisions that other members are expected to rubber-stamp. The US is referred to as the P-1 (permanent one) due to the disproportionate weight of this ‘hyperpower” in decision-making.

The UN’s debacles in Somalia (1993) and Rwanda (1994) led to the Security Council’s reluctance to intervene decisively in Africa for six years. In 2001, P-5 ambassadors told a closed meeting that the organisation was unlikely to react any differently if a genocide occurred in Burundi than it had reacted to the massacre in Rwanda. The permanent members, however, do suffer rare defeats: the refusal of African states to implement sanctions imposed on Libya by the council in 1998 forced a hasty retreat.

South Africa will have one distinct advantage: the P-5 have traditionally deferred to African countries on issues concerning the continent, which the major powers consider to be a region of low strategic importance. If South Africa is to make an impact during its two-year stint on the Security Council, it will be as an African power on issues concerning the continent. And there is no shortage of issues to consider: More than 60% of council deliberations are on Africa, and seven of the UN’s 17 peacekeeping missions and nearly 90% of its peacekeepers are deployed in Africa. South Africa’s deployment of 3 000 peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Darfur, as well as its leading diplomatic role in Burundi, the DRC and Côte d’Ivoire, represent a great deal of political capital.

South Africa should focus most of its energy on issues such as Sudan, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Burundi, the DRC and Western Sahara. Tshwane should collaborate with Ghana, Congo-Brazzaville, other members of the global South on the council, and the African group.

Any attempts by South Africa to play an influential role in cases such as Israel/Palestine, North Korea and Iran are likely to be perceived as delusions of grandeur — and rebuffed. South Africa should, of course, contribute to such debates, but with the clear recognition that the permanent five (and particularly the US) are likely to impose their own decisions on issues that they consider of strategic importance.

All of Africa should wish South Africa well.

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